Obama administration discloses size of U.S. nuclear arsenal

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; A12

UNITED NATIONS -- Shattering a taboo dating from the Cold War, the Obama administration revealed Monday the size of the American nuclear arsenal -- 5,113 weapons -- as it embarked on a campaign for tougher measures against countries with hidden nuclear programs.

The figure was in line with previous estimates by arms-control groups. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized that it was the very disclosure of the long-held secret that was important.

"We think it is in our national security interest to be as transparent as we can about the nuclear program of the United States," she told reporters at a high-level nuclear conference in New York, where she announced the change in policy. "We think that builds confidence."

Shortly after Clinton's speech, the Pentagon issued a fact sheet saying that the number of working U.S. nuclear warheads had plummeted from a peak of 31,255 in 1967. In addition to the functioning weapons, thousands more have been retired and await dismantlement, the Pentagon said. Analysts estimate that number at about 4,500.

The Obama administration had debated for months whether to release the arsenal numbers, with some intelligence officials worrying they could give clues to would-be bombmakers about how much plutonium was required for a weapon. But Clinton noted that reliable private estimates of the stockpile were readily available.

The disclosures came on a day when Iran and the United States squared off over U.S.-led efforts to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, used the meeting to lash out at the United States and accuse nuclear nations of trying to unfairly deny much of the world the possibility to pursue nuclear energy programs.

But Ahmadinejad was greeted with a public scolding about his country's secretive nuclear program from the United Nations' top leadership. The comments by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the chief nuclear arms watchdog, Yukiya Amano, constituted an extraordinary rebuke of a head of state in the General Assembly hall.

The U.N. conference is to review the 40-year-old pact, which has checked the spread of the deadly weapons but is under strain because of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. Obama has put the treaty at the center of his ambitious nuclear agenda. It is essentially a bargain: The five initial nuclear powers promise to gradually destroy their stockpiles, while other countries pledge to never develop them. In exchange, the other countries get help on developing nuclear energy programs, subject to U.N. monitoring.

At many past NPT review conferences, the nuclear "have-nots" blasted the "haves" -- particularly the United States -- for moving too slowly on their pledge to disarm. That argument has been championed by Iran, one of the 189 countries party to the treaty. The Obama administration has tried to show its compliance by touting achievements including its recent arms agreement with Russia.

In a blunt address to the conference, Clinton said the world was at a "crossroads" and faced a frightening "new wave of proliferation." The only way to avoid it was by strengthening global non-proliferation rules, she said.

"President Obama and I know . . . that there are doubts among some about whether nuclear-weapons states, including my country, are prepared to help lead this effort. I am here to tell you as clearly as I can: The United States will do its part," Clinton said.

She also announced a U.S. drive to raise $100 million over five years to help NPT members pursue nuclear energy, as long as they stuck to their commitments against seeking the bomb. Half would come from Washington, she said.

For all of its intense effort, the Obama administration thinks the month-long NPT conference will produce few concrete results. That's because conference decisions are made by consensus and, thus, can be blocked by Iran.

But U.S. diplomats hope to get a "supermajority" of countries that will agree to an action plan to pursue in other forums.

The Obama administration is separately seeking a fourth set of U.N. economic sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program.

In his speech, Ban called on Iran to cooperate more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency and to comply fully with Security Council resolutions ordering it to stop reprocessing uranium, a key ingredient in a nuclear bomb.

"Let us be clear: The onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts and concerns about its program," Ban said in his address.

Ban said Tehran should accept a proposal by the IAEA to ship Iran's nuclear fuel abroad in exchange for a more purified form of uranium fuel to power the country's medical research reactor.

In a rare breach in protocol, Ban left the General Assembly hall for another meeting shortly before Ahmadinejad -- the only head of state attending the nuclear conference -- delivered his speech. When Ahmadinejad took the podium, he responded to Ban.

"The secretary general said that Iran must accept the fuel exchange and that the ball is now in Iran's court," Ahmadinejad said. "Well, I'd like to tell you and inform him as well that we'd accepted that from the start. . . . Therefore, we have now thrown the ball in the court of those who should accept our proposal."

Iran has repeatedly said it is willing to do the fuel swap, only to reverse course or add conditions.

Jabbing his finger in the air, the Iranian leader accused the United States and other nuclear states of manipulating the international arms-control system to preserve their nuclear privileges and to keep others from getting peaceful energy. The United States, France, Britain and other allied countries walked out in protest.

Addressing the conference, Amano said the agency remains unable to confirm that all of Iran's nuclear material is being used for peaceful purposes "because Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation."

Ahmadinejad laughed as he listened to a translation of Amano's remarks.

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